2017 National League Central Projections

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X-Chicago Cubs 101-61

Life is good right now for the Chicago Cubs as they are set to embark on the 2017 Major League Baseball season. The Cubs are fresh off of winning their first World Series Championship since 1908, and the bad news for the rest of the National League is they might not be slowing down anytime soon.

The Cubs won the World Series with a solid blend of youngsters and veteran players as this team was skillfully crafted by their president of baseball operations in Theo Epstein. Epstein began the process of building the Cubs at the conclusion of the 2011 Major League Baseball season as he inherited a team that was one of the league’s bottom feeders. And in less than five years Epstein was able to lead the Cubs to World Series glory.

The Cubs possess arguably the best infield combination that Major League Baseball has seen since the 1970’s when the Los Angeles Dodgers had Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey, or the Cincinnati Reds of that same era with Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. And heading into a new season, this unit will once again be the fuel of the Cubs engine.

Kris Bryant

It hasn’t taken third baseman Kris Bryant that long to establish himself as one of the game’s top players as in just two seasons, he has already been named as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2015, while he took home N.L. MVP honors last year. Bryant is only 25-years of age and already he has become a household name as he batted .292 with 29 home runs and 102 runs batted in. Bryant’s swing is extremely effortless as he can carry the Cubs lineup for weeks at a time. And if Bryant were to somehow slip, he can lean on Rizzo right behind him in the Cubs lineup.

Like Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo batted .292 while he launched 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs. Together Rizzo and Bryant give the Cubs two of the best power bats in the National League, while giving the fans on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues plenty to cheer about.

Russell was able to hit 21 home runs last season, but he must improve his batting average which was only at .238 last season, while he also needs to cut down on the errors at shortstop where he committed 14.

Second baseman Ben Zobrist is in the midst of his second tour of duty under manager Joe Maddon as these two helped the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist brings a good presence to a locker room, and more importantly he knows how to win. In 2015, Zobrist was traded by the Oakland Athletics to the Kansas City Royals and he was vital in their winning the World Series. Zobrist would then become an unrestricted free agent and as he signed with Cubs, he batted .357 in the Fall Classic which led to him being the World Series MVP. And even though that Zobrist will be 36-years of age in May, expect him to once again have a solid impact on this Cubs team.

The Cubs lost outfielder Dexter Fowler in free agency as he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, but they won’t skip a beat as they brought outfielder Jon Jay on board. Jay knows a thing or two about winning as he helped the Cardinals win the World Series Title in 2011, and he fits into that mode of those scrappy players that are willing to do anything to win which is something that every championship team needs.

Outfielder Jason Heyward needs to put his disappointing 2016 campaign behind him as he was only able to bat .230 with 7 homers and 49 runs batted in after signing a huge contract in free agency. The last two years have seen Kyle Schwarber be a man without a position as the Cubs haven’t committed to him as a catcher, while they’ve stuck him in left field. Schwarber has been like a deer in the headlights in the outfield, but as he plenty of pop in his bat, Maddon must find a place for him in this lineup.

The Cubs starting rotation is an embarrassment of riches as each starter has the potential to win at least 15 games. For the second time in the Major League Baseball career of starting pitcher Jon Lester, he won 19 games, and as he has a potent lineup to work with, he’ll still be one of the better pitchers in the National League. The last two years have seen starting pitcher Jake Arrieta combine to win 40 games. And with Arrieta scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season, he should be locked in on the mound. The win total of starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks has increased in each of his three MLB seasons, and the sky is the limit for him after he won 16 games last year which included him leading the N.L. in earned run average at 2.13. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel has been a journeyman in MLB, but he’s coming off of his first 15-win campaign, while veteran starting John Lackey rounds out a staff that’ll it be tough to get wins against.

As a unit the Cubs led the National League in team earned run average at 3.15 last season and their bullpen will once again be difficult to deal with. Relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman came up big for the Cubs in their run to the World Series Championship. But when Chapman hit free agency and his asking price was too high for Chicago, Epstein got creative as he traded outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for relief pitcher Wade Davis.

Wade Davis

Davis is another former Rays player who was under Maddon, and after arms issues took away his usefulness as a starter, he has been valuable in the bullpen. Davis was lights out for the Royals in their run to the World Series Championship in 2015, and he gives Maddon a very reliable arm to close out games.

The Cubs should expect to get every team’s best punch this season due to the fact that they are the defending champs. And unless the Cubs have themselves a World Series hangover, expect this team to be right back in the hunt to go all the way.

St. Louis Cardinals 87-75

Make no mistake about it that the St. Louis Cardinals are one of Major League Baseball’s most consistent teams. Since 2000, the Cardinals have reached the postseason 12 times, while they have a pair of World Series Championships to their credit during this span. But the Cards will enter the 2017 Major League Baseball in an unfamiliar spot as they missed the postseason for the first time since 2010, however they can take solace in knowing that the last time this happened, they would win it all in the following season.

Mike Matheny

Mike Matheny is set to begin his sixth year as the manager of the Cardinals and he’s never had a losing record. For 13 years Matheny was a Major League Baseball catcher which included a five-year stint with the Cards. And that knowledge of the game has helped Matheny have success in St. Louis. What has also helped Matheny is that he can rely on one of the best catchers in MLB to lead the Cardinals pitching staff.

The last 13 Major League Baseball seasons have seen catcher Yadier Molina control things behind the plate for St. Louis. Molina is one of the best in the business as far as calling a game for the Cardinals pitching staff, while his defensive skills are second to none. Molina has been known to throw out runners who are attempting to steal on him from his knees, while he can catch players napping at first base. Molina is a lifetime .285 hitter that always tends to get the clutch hit, and the age of 34 with him set to crack the Cardinals top 20 list for all-time wins above replacement as he’s currently at 33, it’s time to give him serious consideration to one day be enshrined into Cooperstown.

Yadier Molina

Molina’s ability to call a game will come in handy for a Cardinals pitching staff that is seeking to get back on track. Last year the Cards team earned run average of 4.08 was seventh in the National League which was a drop from where this staff has typically been in recent years.

In the off-season Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed starting pitcher Carlos Martinez to a five-year extension that is worth $51 million. Martinez is coming off of a 16-win campaign and he can be the future of the Cards rotation if he learns how to consistently bring it every fifth day. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright might no longer be looked at as a National League Cy Young Award candidate, but even the age of 35, he is still a quality hurler that is capable of winning 15 games. And although that there are question marks surrounding both Martinez and Wainwright, there are even bigger ones in regards to starting pitchers Mike Leake and Michael Wacha who have been up and down just like the stock market.

Last year would see relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal lose his status as the Cardinals closer to Seung-hwan Oh. After saving 19 games and posting an earned run average of 1.92, Oh should once again be the incumbent to get the baseball from Matheny heading into the ninth inning. But if Rosenthal is able to regain the magic that saw him combine to save 93 games in 2014 and 2015, it will add depth to the bullpen in St. Louis.

Offensively the Cardinals finished third in runs scored in the National League with 779. The injury bug really got the best of St. Louis in 2016 as only two everyday players were able to appear in at least 135 games which means that there is some optimism around this squad if they can remain healthy.

Jedd Gyorko

After languishing with the San Diego Padres for three years, second baseman Jedd Gyorko appears to have found a home in St. Louis. Gyorko led the Cards in home runs last season with 30 which was also a career-high for him as he appears to be another player who has bought into the “Cardinal Way”. Three of the last four years have seen infielder Matt Carpenter be an All-Star as he is one of the scrappiest players in baseball. There’s absolutely nothing that stands out about Carpenter’s ability, but he is one of Major League Baseball’s hardest workers which has allowed him to become a cornerstone in St. Louis.

Outfielder Randal Grichuk has worked his way up through the Cardinals system and after his 24 homers last year, he could be in the mix to be an All-Star in 2017. Outfielder Stephen Piscotty was the Cardinals first round choice in 2012 and he is beginning to come into his own as he hit 22 home runs, while batting .273, and driving in 85 runs last season. And just like Grichuk, Piscotty could flirt with being an All-Star this year as both players, along with the newest Cardinal in Dexter Fowler give St. Louis plenty of range in the outfield defensively.

After the Cards missed out on the playoffs last year, I expect this organization to put forth the effort to get back to the postseason while pushing the Cubs in the National League Central.

Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78

From 2013-2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a level of success that they had been denied for a very long time. The Pirates enjoyed winning baseball for the first time since the early 1990’s which also saw them postseason bound. But 2016 would be a different story in Pittsburgh as the Pirates took a step back as they limped to the finish line with a record of 78-83.

Andrew McCutchen

A big reason for the Pirates struggles last season was that center fielder Andrew McCutchen had a down year. McCutchen batted a career-low .256 which is a far cry from a player who won the National League MVP Award in 2013. This off-season has seen the Pirates front office flirt with the notion of trading McCutchen which has yet to happen. But where there is smoke, there is also fire, and I do believe that McCutchen’s time with the Pirates in winding down. However if things are able to be smoothed over between McCutchen and the Pirates, this outfield has the makings of one of the better units in the N.L.

Gregor Polanco

Outfielder Gregor Polanco continues to emerge as a solid contributor after he hit a career-high 22 homers last season for the Pirates. Polanco also continues to flash the leather in the outfield, and if he’s able to get his batting average up, he should be able to increase his impact for the Bucs. Outfielder Starling Marte’s power numbers may have dipped last season, but he has become more of a consistent hitter at the plate with a batting average of .311, along with an on-base percentage of .362. And if Polanco is able to have a good balance this season between his power and consistency at the plate, the Pirates will be in business.

The Pirates pitching staff also needs to rebound after a down 2016. The Pirates team earned run average of 4.21 was ninth in the National League as they were ravaged by injuries.

No Pirates starter was able to make at least 22 starts last season and led by starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, this aspect must change if the Bucs want to flirt with getting a playoff berth. Cole won 19 games in 2015 and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. But Cole was never able to recover from going over the 200-inning plateau in 2015 for the first time his career as this will be something that Pittsburgh must monitor this season.

Along with Cole, there are nothing but question marks on the Pirates pitching staff which has the look of being held together by spit and glue.

With the National League Central expected to be a battle between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it will be hard for the Pirates to not get lost in the shuffle within the division.

Milwaukee Brewers 70-92

With the recent success in the National League Central of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers have become a forgotten franchise. The Brewers have failed to make the postseason since 2011 as they are a middle of the pack team. The Brewers currently find themselves in a rebuilding process while they also have some aging players on their roster which doesn’t leave that much room for optimism heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season.

Craig Counsell

After taking over midway through the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Craig Counsell is set to begin his second full season as Brewers manager. The Brewers embody the kind of player that Counsell was during 15-year MLB playing career as they are a scrappy bunch that doesn’t mind being the underdogs. But does Milwaukee have a legitimate shot to be a postseason team in 2017?

As Brewers general manager David Stearns has spent the last year trading away most of the quality players, the 2017 team in Milwaukee will be unrecognizable to the casual baseball fan.

Utility man Chris Carter led the National League in home runs last year 41. However the Brewers elected to not bring him back as he joined the New York Yankees which leaves a hole in their lineup. The Brewers still have outfielder Ryan Braun who in spite of the fact that he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs earlier his career, is still one of the better players in the National League. At the age of 32, Braun was able to bat .305 last season, while hitting 30 homers. I was shocked to see that the Brewers have yet to trade Braun as he could be very beneficial to a contender. But in the interim Braun gives Milwaukee a solid veteran in the middle of their lineup as they look to stay afloat.

Jonathan Villar

One building block that the Brewers do have for the future is infielder Jonathan Villar. After being acquired from the Houston Astros, Villar was able to lead the National League in stolen bases last year with 62 as the Brewers appear to have themselves a table setter going forward.

The Brewers pitching staff only managed to get 62 quality starts last season which was 13th in the National League and there isn’t much optimism heading into the new campaign. No Brewers pitcher last season was able to throw at least 200 innings which included starting pitcher Zach Davies who led this staff with just 11 wins. And as the Brewers don’t have a prototypical ace to rely on, it will be difficult for this team to be a contender.

More than likely the Brewers won’t be a playoff team in 2017, but they will be scrappy.

Cincinnati Reds 65-97

It’s no secret that the Cincinnati Reds are in rebuilding mode as the last few years have seen them become an afterthought in the National League Central. The Reds are coming off of consecutive 90-loss seasons for the first time since 1934 and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for the current baseball futility in Southern Ohio. Manager Bryan Price is set to begin his third season as Reds manager and as he has spent the last two years on the hot seat, he could become the scapegoat if Cincinnati is unable to get it turned around.

Joey Votto, Adam Duvall

Two of the bright spots on the Reds roster for the upcoming season are outfielder Adam Duvall and first baseman Joey Votto. Last year saw Duvall become an overnight sensation as he batted .297 with 33 home runs 103 runs batted in which led to his first All-Star Game appearance. This was Duvall’s first opportunity to become an everyday player and now it is time to see if he is ready to turn the corner and put these numbers up consistently. During the past ten years Votto has gone about his business and been the face of the franchise for the Reds as his offensive numbers put him in the mix with some of the greats who have played for this franchise. After a down 2014, Votto has once again found his groove at the plate as the former National League MVP is one of the best all-around hitters in baseball.

But as the Reds are rebuilding, it will be interesting to see how much longer that Votto will be in Cincinnati. Votto is still owed nearly $200 million on his contract which runs through 2024 and at some point you have to expect Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams to move his All-Star to a contender which would be beneficial to all parties involved.

After appearing in 159 games last season, third baseman Eugenio Suarez could be ready to become a breakout player in Cincinnati. Like Duvall, Suarez has finally gotten a consistent chance to show what he can do and he could be one of the centerpieces of the Reds rebuild. Suarez is only 25-years of age and after hitting a career-high 21 homers last season, opponents have to pay more attention to him.

But as the Reds lineup could be fun to watch, their pitching staff will once again have some questions. Last season the Reds were 14th in the National League in team earned run average (4.91), and 10th in quality stars with 67.

Starting pitcher Dan Straily led the Reds in victories last season with 14, but he was traded to the Miami Marlins in January. Starting pitcher Brandon Finnegan emerged on the Major League Baseball scene in the 2014 playoffs when he helped the Kansas City Royals win the American League Pennant. But after Finnegan was traded to the Reds, his role has been shifted to that of a starter. Finnegan does have an electric fastball, and if he is able to reach the 200-inning mark this season, there is a possibility that he could also strike out 200 batters.

Bryan Price

As the Reds more than likely will fall short of making the postseason here in 2017, I doubt that Price will be able to save his job. However the problems in Cincinnati are bigger than Price as this organization has become a train wreck.

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